Thursday, 1 March 2018

Nino's Italian Restaurant: Just like Famiglia

Restaurants come and go. Many open up to great fanfare only to close their door two years later. I can think of a few places that I really liked, that operated for a number of years but then disappeared - Hobo's (later Bellamy's) located where Fabricland is now on Bayfield Street, Friends, Neighbours, and Ruby Bigonia's (all three owned by the same group), the Merriman (Hooters present location) and Reggie's Sandwich Factory on Dunlop Street East. Then there are the plodders, the slow horses in the race, just moving steadily along, serving quality food every day to regular customers in simple surroundings. Nothing flashy, just authentic food and excellent service. When you are still in the game four decades later, I think you can be declared a winner.

Nino's Italian restaurant is definitely a winner. If you Google Nino's, you get this fitting description, "Unpretentious Italian joint with familiar fare like chicken parmigiana and spaghetti since 1973." I wish I had written that. It occurred to me, while we were waiting for our meals, that people who lived in Barrie when it was a small city of about 27,000 would only have had two or three places to order a pizza from in those days. Today, there must be a hundred places where you can buy so-called Italian take-out food in the area. Yet Nino's keep plodding along, unperturbed by 2-4-1 deals, stuffed crusts, pretzel dough, crazy bread or trendy toppings.

So, a few months back, I treated my husband, Ron, to dinner at Nino's. He is big on Italian food and we had never been to Nino's before. I know, I know! The brick building sits nearly alone, as it always has, at 298 Blake Street, although a Tim Horton's has recently moved next door. It must have been a bit of a gamble at the time to start a restaurant so far away from the main areas of business in Barrie.

The exterior says 1970s Italian to me. The bricks and the arches over the windows remind me very much of the homes built by Italian immigrants in the very multicultural area where I grew up in that
era. Inside, the arched brickwork continues. The dining room is very neat and orderly. It has clearly been updated not too long ago but it still has that retro feel.

Nino himself has handed over his apron to his son, Luigi, now. It is fantastic to know that the restaurant he and his wife, Rosa, started all those years ago is still family run. Nino, who learned his craft in Italy, built his business on fine house made pasta, stone baked pizza and an assortment of sumptuous dishes like lasagna and manicotti. The tradition continues today.

So what did I have? On the way in, I spied the special of the day written on a chalk board - mushroom ravioli. I ordered that along with a caesar salad and some nice cheesy garlic bread to start. Ron chose lasagna. A nice glass of white house wine and a complimentary basket of fresh Italian bread completed the meal perfectly. Or did it? Couldn't help ourselves - got some dreamy tiramisu for dessert as well!

I should mention that our server was just wonderful too. I didn't get her name but she reminded me of my Italian friend, Salvina, just so warm and earthy. I watched her take care of her regulars just like extended family. Brava!

Monday, 18 September 2017

Dairy Queen: Keeping Barrie Cool Since 1959

My father was a hard working man and my mother didn't drive. At the end of a long, hot summer day, the kids were all begging for a swim somewhere but Dad would have preferred just to put his feet up. Understandable. But once in a while, we prevailed and the station wagon was loaded up with the customary towels, buckets and shovels, the old plastic webbing type folding chairs and the bathing caps that I hated so much.

What a joy it was to splash about in the cool lake water and then dig deep holes in the sand. We created some very elaborate sandcastles, surrounding them with long, snaking moats and topping the parapets with flags fashioned out of discarded drinking straws. The fun was eventually ended either by a wave of Dad's arm or by the beginning of a thunderstorm.

We packed up and drove away feeling refreshed and just a bit hungry, and we all hoped that Dad would say the most magical words of all. "You don't want to stop here and get a hamburger, do you?" He always asked this question at the last minute, just as it looked like we were about to drive right past Dairy Queen. I tell you, to a bunch of soaking wet kids straight out of a lake, after an hour or two of fresh air and horseplay, these were the best burgers ever! Wet bathing suit, sandy feet and a charbroiled DQ hamburger eaten in the back of Pontiac Laurentian  station wagon - what a great memory. So the answer to Dad's question, as if anyone doubted it, was always a very loud yes!

Recently, I took advantage of Barrie's fantastic waterfront and took a dip in Kempenfelt Bay. One hot afternoon seemed like the perfect day. The white board at the life guard station read Welcome to Centennial Beach. Weather: Sunny 41 C. Water: 25 C. I waded into the sparkling water with two of my grown sons and we all agreed that it was a great day to be a citizen of Barrie. We took a moment to consider where the water's edge used to be (pre 1967) just below the new condominium towers, and to acknowledge the brilliant thinkers and planners who made this jewel their Centennial project.

Centennial Park just keeps on getting better too. Have you checked out the new boardwalk? We stopped and ate a picnic lunch under a shady tree before our swim. Yes, yes, I know - Mom says no swimming for an hour after you eat! Our time in the lake was more splashing and floating than full-on swimming. Olympians we are not.

After that, we decided to do something daring. Well, daring for me that is. I am a self-confessed chicken and never attempt anything remotely dangerous, but kayaking looked to me like something even I could do. So we took a walk down to the Happy Paddling boat and board rental trailer and signed up to give it a go. What a blast! The coolest (by any definition of the word) activity to do, in the scorching city of Barrie today, was to paddle a kayak straight through the mist of the Rotary Fountain at Centennial Park.

How do you cap off a perfect summer day? The same way as always, of course - with a visit to DQ. You would never know it, because she had a face-lift not long ago, but this Queen has been serving up goodies on the corner of Bradford and Vespra Streets since 1959. Everything from the counter and walls inside, to the signage, and the the painted yellow lines in the parking lot are freshly done and new. But the shop and parking lot are still as small as they ever were, which somehow seems nice to me. Maybe it is nostalgia talking, but to me nothing says says summer more than seeing the door of a DQ propped open to allow the queue of ice cream and burger seekers to spill out onto the sidewalk.

So today, we each got a strawberry cheesecake Blizzard. Oh my stars, who invented this? What evil genius decided to combine little chunks of cheesecakey goodness with gooey-sweet strawberry syrup and swirl it into ice cream? We certainly savoured our little after beach treat here, as so many, many other Barrie folks have in the last 58 years in this place.

From those early days of banana splits and dipped cones, Dairy Queen seems to get better and better too. Remember when the Dennis the Menace gang were on all the DQ advertising, and by saying scrumpdillyishus would get you a 49 cent peanut buster parfait? Well, now you can even find poutine in Canadian DQs too. It would seem that the familiar favourites still remain while the new food items just cozy up to the old ones on the menu board. Sounds brilliant to me. So tell me about your good memories, what yummy treat have brought you down to the DQ on Bradford Street over the years?


Saturday, 12 August 2017

Summer Time in the City: New Fun Things to Try (and Eat) in Barrie

I love water! I like to be in it, on it, near it, whether it be sea or lake, as the cool blue of a body of water refreshes me in both body and soul. When I read that Barrie was getting a new water attraction this summer, I was pretty excited. Splash On Water Park sounded fantastic!

Anybody who knows me knows that I am a self-confessed chicken and that most roller coasters and amusement park rides scare the daylights out of me. So Splash On, with its soft, brightly coloured bouncy platforms, looked to me like something even this recycled teenager, with scaredy cat tendencies, could do. So I went.

My husband, and son and I went down to Centennial Park one finally thunderstorm-free evening. Looking out at the water park a few yards from the beach, we could see a swarm of young kids clambering all over the structure. They were obviously enjoying the sunny late afternoon fun, and their parents were enjoying the cheaper after 5 p.m. admission price.

We signed up, paid up and got our wrist bands and life jackets. Off we went, swimming out into the bay, which had reached a swimmable temp in time for mid August, as is typical of this deep part of the lake. We climbed aboard the inflatable structure and I immediately learned 2 things. The park is far more wobbly than I imagined and much slipperier!

Very soon after this, and after several unexpectedly rapid dunks in the lake, I began to think that I might just be a little too old for this. Maybe. Just maybe. My theory is that if a 10 year old falls down 50 times, they will get up and run around laughing and jumping with no ill effects, but if a 50 year old falls down 10 times, they may not be able to go to work tomorrow.

My back told me that I should perhaps just stay in the lake next time I wiped out, and I listened. I enjoyed a nice dip in Kempenfelt Bay and got plenty of entertainment from the antics of the kids, jumping and hollering like kids should do in the summer. After my own 23 year old kid had had enough, we decided to go for a burger.

Our plan was to have dinner at the beach outpost of Kenzington Burger, but we didn't realize that they had opted not to open for the 2017 season due to the construction happening around Centennial Park this year. The near finished product looks great, by the way!

Not to worry, Barrie's inventory of fun dining establishments is endless, and we quickly had a Plan B in mind - State & Main in the new shopping plaza at Cundles and Duckworth.

Nothing like a swim to make you ravenous! After changing into dry clothes at home, the three of us headed over to State & Main, part of a young chain of Canadian restaurants with a rather American sounding name.

We knew that a dear family friend had started working at State & Main, and we saw her walk across the patio as we parked our car. Of course, we just had to ask the hostess to seat us in Della's section!

What a great menu! If you have read a few of my blog posts, you will remember that I am a quasi-vegetarian. A lot of the time, my choices are limited to a veggie burger or fish and chips. At State & Main, I was actually torn between a number of wonderful-sounding dishes - Long Beach fish tacos, jalapeno mac and cheese, Pacific Rim noodle bowl. In the end, I chose the applewood salmon club.

So this is no ordinary diner clubhouse. Nope. Described as oven roasted applewood salmon, served on a toasted brioche bun, with roasted red pepper aoli, lettuce, tomato, peppered bacon, and fresh avocado, it sounded fabulous. Bonus: most menu items come with 2 sides! I picked quinoa salad and fries with dill dip.

The boys had heard tales of a legendary grilled cheese burger and never really considered any other options. They both chose fries with dill dip and caesar salads. My husband later got some bonus bacon strips after I removed them from my sandwich. (Crazy vegetarians!)

The plates were beautifully presented. Each white rectangular platter arrived with neatly placed and garnished colourful food items. Everything was prepared perfectly from the light golden touch on the grilled cheese burger buns, and the well-baconed caesar salads, to the tempting quinoa and the most finely shredded, bright green lettuce I have ever seen on a sandwich.

How can you tell if I or my family thoroughly enjoyed our meal? If we are already trying to figure out how to recreate it at home, it must have been a hit. What is in that dill dip anyway? Is it mayo, sour cream and fresh dill? I must have this for all of my french fries in the future! I guess we will be buying some loaves of un-sliced white bread very soon, because a grilled bread bun definitely trumps a plain burger bun. (Apologies for saying trump - ugggh.)

 Casual fine dining meets bar at State & Main in northeast Barrie. Dating couples, young dudes having beer and wings, celebrators of granddad's birthday, slightly damp post water park diners all enjoyed the vibe on the patio as the sun set over Little Lake. Give it a whirl. Ask for Della!

Player's Diner Slips into the History Books

In the days before the internet, if you were looking for a new job, you checked the back pages of the Barrie Examiner and looked in the want ads in the classified section. If you wanted to be quick off the mark, you picked up a copy of the paper at Player's on Dunlop St. because this shop was first in town to get the Examiner every day as it was printed just around the corner at 16 Bayfield St. I am sure that I found more than one job that way myself.

I wonder how many passersby never knew that there was a little diner in the back half of the store, or how many others popped in for cigarettes or a greeting card and were surprised to find a row of stools and little tables, high-schoolers with their Coke and fries, downtown shoppers taking a break for coffee and pie.

For the better part of a century, a smoke shop stood on this spot at 20 Dunlop St. E. Many remember it as the United Cigar Store with its unforgettable wooden Indian statue out front. I have often heard it mentioned but never saw it. I suppose the figure would almost be considered politically incorrect these days, but in the past it was a common symbol of a tobacconist just like the barber's red and white pole was a symbol of his trade.

By the 1970s, the name above the door was Player's. When I first remember it, the colour of the sign was teal blue, the same shade as the packaging of my brand of smokes (oh yes, I did), Player's Light cigarettes. Was the store named after the brand? I still wonder about that. I am pretty sure that those cigarettes were less than $2.00 back then.

As word spread recently of Player's impending closure, long time Barrie residents took to social media to share their sadness and also their brilliant memories of the last cozy Downtown coffee shop left over from Barrie's small town days.

I remember the juke boxes at the tables. If the song skipped, it was my job to go down and hit the side of the big one in the basement - scary basement! - Sandy O.

I remember my mom taking me there between grades 1 - 4 as a treat. The fries and gravy were the best. I loved being able to sit right at the counter. I felt like a big girl. - Samantha L.

The United Cigar Store ... I would go with my Dad in the early 50s for a grilled cheese ... great memories. - Valerie M.

Jean's pies were awesome! - Mary-Ellen G.M.

It must have been like homecoming week in the final days of Player's Diner. Many nostalgia seekers, myself included, stopped in for one last bite, to reminisce and to say goodbye to Moe, the last owner, who is retiring. Promenade Days was in full swing outside as my husband and I popped into the quiet of the little diner.

Our waitress, (and she really was a waitress in the traditional Mel's Diner sort of way), served us coffee as we scanned the old school, low tech menu above the open kitchen. Toasted western sandwiches. Homemade pie. Cheeseburgers. Liver and onions. (Sorry, but yuck!) Milk shakes. All the old favourites were there.

I ordered a mushroom omelette with home fries and Ron got an egg salad sandwich with fries smothered in gravy. Our food was cooked on a flat top grill and an ordinary household type stove by Moe's wife, Ranjeet. One cook, one server, plastic blue checked table cloths, 7-Up menu board, a phone book and leatherette stools - we will never see the likes of this again in Downtown Barrie.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Out-dressed by Chavo Crepes

Hair un-brushed, no make-up on, not even any socks despite sub zero weather. I was heading to the bus terminal this morning with Margaret, just dropping her off and then popping back home, or so I thought. Dammit, we missed the bus! With another bus coming in an hour, we could either go home again or kill 60 minutes in Downtown Barrie. We decided on option #2 and went to look for a coffee shop. As we strolled past Memorial Square, I spied a warm and friendly Open sign on Chavo Crepes across the road at 74 Dunlop Street. "Hey, let's go there!"

Margaret wasn't sure. She figured that nearly every menu item would most certainly contain Nutella. Meanwhile, I was looking for something breakfasty, and I was picturing some sort of cheese crepes rolled up and sauced, served fast-food style in a venue much like the short-lived Beaver Tails farther down Dunlop St. You know - somewhere that no one would notice that I had just jumped off the couch to give someone a ride, skipping most of my beauty routine, and looking more unkempt than I would have liked.

Um yeah. Chavo Crepes is very nice inside. Very, very nice. We were greeted by a tall man who reminded me of waiters I have seen in Paris, and he waved us to a seat near the back of the long narrow restaurant. Slim and chic, very elegant, some of the prettiest lighting I have ever seen, I was not expecting such a stylish interior.

We ordered tea. What we were not brought was a stainless steel teapot and a white ceramic mug, but instead a tray of tiny, colourful tins, all of them decorated with unique names and designs, and each with the words Smell Me printed on the lid. So we smelled them. Every tin was a small treasure chest of fruity, spicy goodness, floral scents, nutty aromas - not your grandma's tea collection! Very hot water served in a tall glass mug arrived on a saucer, accompanied by a long spoon and a small ramekin to sit the tea bag. My apple chai tea ingredients were encased in a drawstring bag which floated in the water and slowly turned it from clear to amber brown. Margaret's tea turned rosy pink.

The menu was diverse and appealing with lots of non-dessert crepes on offer. Our crepes, both smoked salmon with a homemade dill-cheese spread on buckwheat, were simply amazing! They were artfully presented,topped with capers, red onion and lemon, and served with a spring mix-apple salad drizzled with a house Bulgarian style pesto dressing.

We savoured every last bite, then lingered over our delightful tea, almost missing a another bus! What unexpected little jewel we stumbled across today. Thank you so much for a lovely brunch from the frumpy girls at the second last table. We promise to be back and be more presentable next time!

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Nibbling and Sipping in Toronto

I am a little jealous. Yes, I am. Last winter, my daughter moved into the cutest little room in a century home in Toronto, in Baldwin Village, a stone's throw from Chinatown and Kensington Market. To step out the front door is to step into the shadow of the iconic CN Tower, and into a sea of multicultural passersby all heading to funky little coffee shops, ethnic markets and indie mercantiles. The world is here. Chinese traders, hippies of all ages, art students, musicians, pot heads, baristas, and cyclists, Rich, poor, gay, straight, vegan, carnivore, young and old. These neighbourhoods are alive!

So I took the bus to Toronto last weekend - city driver I am not! My girl met me at Union Station and she set me up with a TTC rider pass, which I certainly needed as she whisked me all over the downtown area, both above ground and below, by bus, streetcar, subway and on foot, until my usually excellent sense of direction was mush.

After dropping my bags off at her place, she asked me what I would like to do next. Well, eat of course! We had encountered so many tantalizing smells of cooking on our way to her home, scents of garlic and ginger, the multilayered spices of Chinese and Indian cuisine, hints of citrus from open air markets and freshly ground fair trade coffees. I wanted in on that, but where do we start?

Don't ask me how we got there, but our first stop was actually a chain restaurant that  did not seem like a chain restaurant. Before looking it up later, we assumed it was a one-off eatery, as it appeared very natural in its surroundings, sort of rustic in decor and so fitting to the style of the neighbourhood that it must have evolved here. We had stumbled upon Bare Burger at 111 Dundas St. W, and we were glad we did!

Likely you have tried a couple of the local burger places in Barrie where you choose your patty, bread, toppings, sauces and sides from the menu and the kitchen creates a unique burger for you. Or you can pick a pre-curated hamburger already designed to please. It took us a while to decide. Part of my dilemma, as a nearly full time vegetarian, was the surprising amount of choices I had. Normally, there is a veggie burger on the menu. Bare Burger has three! In the end, both of us opted for the Farmstead Burger, which is a sweet potato and kale patty served with the most dreamy (and messy) green hummus, tomatoes, baby kale and a avocado basil dressing. Yum-eee! Four thumbs up.

Next, she zoomed me over to Roncesvalles Avenue where we perused some kitschy little shops before stopping in at Extra Butter for the best chai latte she had found in town yet. Small, unassuming and sparely decorated, my daughter and I sat sipping our fragrant lattes while wondering at the seemingly hand printed faux wallpaper. Is this silver paint and a Sharpie? Someone with a steady hand and a lot of patience must work here, and she was right - this is the best chai ever!

Many stores later, we rested our shop-weary bones in a comfy booth at the Black Bull Tavern at 298 Queen St. W. at Soho St. We enjoyed a couple of tall, cool ciders in this friendly 180 year old pub before strolling on home for the night.

On Sunday morning, more magical mystery touring on the TTC, and this time we found ourselves sitting in a window-side booth in Golden Griddle looking across at the famed Maple Leaf Gardens. We fortified ourselves with the breakfast buffet before heading out to explore more of Toronto's heart, starting with a look inside the beautifully laid-out Loblaws store in the old hockey venue. Be sure to check out their amazing cake and pastry display, if you get a chance to drop in.

She has been dying to show me a certain little bohemian tea room, so we headed to a street car stop to catch a ride. We could hear some faint techno music in the distance. Was it coming from a shop or an approaching car? As it got closer, and louder, we finally saw a customized bicycle jacked up twice the normal height with what looked like a home stereo, amp and a generator strapped to the sides, pumping out a steady dance beat while Groucho Marx's double peddled steadily along. I have to say - I love Toronto!

The last stop on Margaret's must-show-mom tour was Bampot on Harbord St. Warm, cozy and cavernous, steps go up only to go down again, couch enclosures, pillow-strewn window booths, curtains, eclectic art and a massive wall of board games and tea. Lots of tea. I wanted to sit on a pile of cushions at a low table but my back and legs asked me not to, so I had to comply. Instead, we picked a nice (normal) table near the front door and picked out a game to play.

The tea menu is like nothing I have ever seen before - so many types and sub-types, detailed flavour descriptions and healing properties on a menu that seems more like a tea reference book. Margaret chose a milky honey spice tea, while I was immediately hooked by the name Crabby Rab's Hot Toddy, described as "Inspired by a Scottish granda as crotchety as he was kind, this is the closest you will get to an alcoholic beverage in an unlicensed tea room.'' The menu called it smoky and peaty, words more often used to characterize a whisky, and they were very accurate. Even the aroma, with my eyes closed, brought me back to the small Highland villages of my early childhood and the smell of the cottage fireplaces. Amazing that a tea can do that.

So yes, I am fairly envious of my daughter's adopted city and all the fun little shops, one-of-a-kind eateries, human oddities and the kaleidoscopic mix of architecture, ethnicity and lifestyle. Toronto, you and I have been neighbours for years now and I feel like I hardly know you. Let's work on that, okay?

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Bourbon at The Simcoe Hotel: If These Walls Could Talk ...

When this farm girl arrived in the big city to attend college, the population of Barrie was around 45,000 people. I was excited to be living in an urban area for the first time in my life, eager to spread my wings, make new friends and have a bit of fun. I was given bits of advice from those who had lived in Barrie longer than I but, of all the many pearls of wisdom given by locals of my age group, I only really remember one. Never be seen coming out of the Simcoe Hotel. 

I am not exactly sure why I was supposed to avoid this particular establishment as there were plenty of other taverns of a similar vintage in Downtown Barrie - the Wellington, American, Clarkson and the Clifton over on Bradford Street. They were all perhaps a little rough around the edges but very popular nonetheless. So why the Simcoe? That advice was given to me by a long forgotten person in late 1982, and in all the years since then, I have never been in. Until today, that is!

If the Y.M.C.A. once proclaimed that Barrie is the wickedest town in the Dominion, how bad must the Simcoe Hotel have been earn the honour/dishonour of being the most unsavoury in Barrie? These are stories that I would really like to hear and I hope that some readers might share a few as I am very curious now. Why was this fabulously unique and historic flat iron building held, at least for a time, in such low regard? Oh please, do tell!

The current iconic building that anchors Five Points today was built in 1877 by Michael Shanacy, to replace an 1850s era hotel that was destroyed by fire the previous year. I understand that the former structure, also known as the Simcoe Hotel, had a reputation for wild west style barroom brawls in the 1860s and 1870s. So in through the door that so many farmers, lumbermen and traders walked in and staggered out, I stepped into the front dining room to have some breakfast.

Today, the sign above the south facing entrance says Bourbon, which is the latest (since 2013) eatery to be located within the walls of the Simcoe Hotel building. The rooms upstairs are still rental units, but the restaurant and bar area got a major face lift in 2007 when it became the (now gone) Flat Iron Grill. The Bourbon offers popular fare such as caesar salad, wings, poutine, nachos and burgers today, and on Saturday and Sunday mornings, breakfast.

My husband, Ron, and I took a little tour through Downtown Barrie this Saturday morning and stopped in to old Governor Simcoe's namesake for a bite. I almost wish I had seen the before to appreciate the after, because what we found was a lovely little place, neat, clean, modern with a million dollar view of Kempenfelt Bay. On this sunny day, in this quiet eatery, I found it hard to imagine one hundred plus years of inebriated ruffians being tossed bodily out this very front door onto a dirt street. Darn.

Our server was a delightful lady with a soft voice and gentle manner. She brought us some robust coffees and we awaited our breakfasts in a comfortable 10 year old booth while looking out 140 year old windows.  The easterly view would have changed in 1994 when the Sam The Record Man store burned. The western view met the same fate with the loss of the Wellington Hotel in 2007. Somehow, the ol' Simcoe still stands strong.

Mmmm breakfast! Ron got the classic bacon and egg breakfast and I got a fluffy cheese and mushroom omelette. The only thing wicked or sinful that I encountered at the Simcoe Hotel today were the Bourbon's fried mashed potatoes! Yum!

This blog post was originally written by me for and published there on August 8, 2016. Please check out this wonderful free, searchable online museum of Barrie's photo, audio and video treasurers from the 1880s until today!